Language is at the heart of the link between man and God. We image the communicating God we worship in the way we order the world. Naming the plants, the beasts of the field, and even his companion Image-bearer was at the heart of Adam’s task. Humanity’s first call was to rightly name the world as a way of representing the Sovereign Lord’s gracious kingship of creation. Language and naming, then, are a moral task. Taking responsibility for the naming of good and evil is integral to Christian speech.

Should Christian ethicists defend that language? Should they hold it up as heroic, clear-thinking, and worthy of emulation?This insight is at the heart of Andrew Walker and Owen Strachan’s recent piece at The Federalist titled “Chris Kyle, ‘Savages,’ And Moral Language In A Terrorist Age.” In it they take up the task of defending “American Sniper” Chris Kyle’s language about his work shooting and killing hundreds of Iraqi enemy combatants. Here is a sample of what he’s said:

The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives. Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.

Predictably, Kyle’s language has set off quite a bit of furor among critics which has provoked rousing defenses in response. My own thoughts are somewhat mixed. First, I’m compelled to admit that I have no comprehension of what men in war suffer. I have absolutely no doubt that Chris Kyle saw terrible things done. I actually have little doubt that were I exposed to such gross atrocities at the rate and for the prolonged amount of time that Kyle was, my own attitudes and language would not be pristine. They would be full of rage, anger, and not prone to circumspect, theological parsing. I don’t have a grid for what these men go through. For that reason, I am very willing to excuse the things men say in and after war. I certainly would want to try to understand them. Our servicemen and women deserve that much. I’m not one for the censoriousness of certain members of the comfortable commentariat who’ve never seen a day of actual combat in their lives.

But the question that concerns me is, “Should Christian ethicists defend that language? Should they hold it up as heroic, clear-thinking, and worthy of emulation?”

I am not a pacifist, nor the son of a pacifist. While I appreciate Walker and Strachan’s rousing defense of strong moral language — something sadly necessary in an age of anemic discourse — I’m not sure I can follow the whole of their argument. At least not with respect to Kyle’s particular utterances.

To begin with, I’m not sure I buy Walker and Strachan’s defense of the distinction between condemning a person’s actions versus their underlying ontology. They argue that Kyle’s language isn’t necessarily ontologically dehumanizing but is a comment on the utter savagery of the actions engaged in by his opponents. Now, though they do a fair bit of parsing, the plain fact of language is that the term “savage” refers to persons and “savagery” refers to actions. To condemn a person’s actions, “savagery” works quite well. Naming someone a “savage” goes a bit further and more easily shades into dehumanizing degradation. At least in the popular mind. It’s not entirely clear that Kyle was working with the careful categories Walker and Strachan are.

But say we granted that bit of the argument, especially in light of the saltier language of Scripture they point out. The bigger problem I have with their piece is that it conducts itself as if the events depicted in American Sniper and Chris Kyle’s statements occurred in a historical vacuum where that language doesn’t have a long trail of social history dragging behind it. In other words, there’s still a long social history of colonialism, racism, and cultural violence loaded in a term like “savage” that comes off differently when used by a heroic white man killing violent brown Muslims.

“Savage” is the term that some Christians, or simply Westerners, used to justify their colonial conquest of indigenous peoples who didn’t have the proper sort of cultures, forms of dress, or skin colors. Without sitting on too high of a horse as we look back on our forebears, we have to remember that some considered it part of the White Man’s Burden to conquer the savages, educate them, and give them the Truth of Western culture so that they might not have to dwell in the darkness of their former bestiality. If some had to be killed, enslaved, or tortured in order for that to happen, well, so be it. Cultural heroism required bearing a heavy load and doing what is necessary to ennoble humanity as a whole.

Obviously, Walker and Strachan aren’t racists, don’t condone racism, and indeed, vehemently oppose it quite regularly as contrary to the principles of the Gospel. (On a personal note, I’ve enjoyed Walker’s company in conversation and written for him, and I’ve favorably reviewed one of Strachan’s books here). What I am saying is that their argument lacks a certain sensitivity — and yes, I realize the sneers that term might set off in conservative circles — to the fact that social and historical factors affect our ability to properly name evil for what it is. They might intend to condemn particular activities, but given our social history, there are inevitable connotations of racial and cultural superiority that appears to justify hatred, fear, nativism, and violence against the Arab, the Muslim, and the irrational Other. (And again, yes, I’m aware of how pretentious and silly that term can sound.)

Believe me, I’m not trying to be a member of the “preening minority” here. But as one who has been called “dune-coon,” “sand-nigger,” “Taliban,” and “Osama” outside the Church, and who has regularly faced looks of amazement that I’m an “Arab Christian” inside Evangelical churches, maybe I’m just a bit more attuned to such things. I’m an Evangelical and even a conservative, and will defend my tribe from its worst caricatures and accusations. All the same, we need to be aware of the way our largely white, largely Western location shapes the way we hear and use moral language.

And maybe that’s the kind of thing that Christian ethicists should reflect on when they decide to defend, justify, or hold up certain figures as heroes, both in word and deed. I suppose I’m saying something similar to Matthew Lee Anderson when he says he’s interested in “writing as though the past happened” when it comes to Christian cultural engagement. Indeed, in this case, I think we should take care to name evil “as though the past happened.”


3 Comments

  1. I have no qualms about using the term myself, because I would apply it to anyone of any race who perpetrates heinous acts of violence against the innocent. But if you want to look at this through a historical lens, it is in fact true that the British Empire did away with some savage eastern customs. Take, for instance, the practice of suttee in India, where widows burned themselves alive. The British outlawed that. Moreover, it’s also a simple fact that western missionaries were needed to bring the gospel to any number of far-flung eastern nations.

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